Sexting on the Rise for Millennials: Why We Need to Get Beyond OMG and WTF in Research


If you weren’t familiar with sexting before Anthony Weiner — sending sexually explicit messages or photos via text —  you might have gotten an eyeful watching the first season of Girls. Even Merriam-Webster has officially recognized that sexting happens. Now, a new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics has found that 15% of teens with cell phones report sexting, while 54% say they know someone who sexts.

This study is not the first to find that sexting is on the rise amongst millennials, particularly teens and college students. If you’re a teen with a friend who sexts, researchers conclude, you’re probably sexting too. In 2010, research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that nationally, 4% of cell phone owners ages 12-17 had sent an explicit text, while about 15% said they had received such a text. TIME reported in July that 1 in 3 teens sext. But why does sexting matter, and what makes researchers so intent on discovering whether or not it is indeed on the rise?

Putting aside concerns about bullying, scandal or defamation, and legal issues like allegations of child pornography, what worries researchers in the medical sciences is that teens who sext may be having riskier sex.

According to the report:

“[M]ost importantly, these data reveal that sexting is associated with physical sexual risk taking. Unlike work that has suggested that sexting is a low risk, or healthy alternative to sexual risk taking, we find that there is a clustering of sexual risk behaviors, which includes sexting. Sexting was statistically significantly associated with sexual activity and showed a near significant trend with reports of unsafe sex (ie, not using a condom at last intercourse).”

The researchers suggest that though they cannot conclusively say that “sending sexts causes one to engage in sexual activity or engage in unsafe sex practices,” public health officials should keep the correlation in mind when planning and implementing sex education programs.

Other research has indicated that sexting is an increasingly normalized part of developing sexual relationships — an “experimental” activity which allows teens explore sexual desire and feelings, or helps bring about some sort of real-life intimacy. (It may also be that teens who are sexting are simply bored.)

Since sexting can easily go wrong (especially for teenagers), sexual health educators and concerned parents alike may find themselves facing more and more questions about what the best approach to take is when it comes to talking to teens about sexting and, by extension, about sex. If sexting is in fact linked to sexual risk-taking, what is causing the “risky” behavior in the first place, and why it reflected across multiple behaviors?

The answer is probably not as simple as low self-esteem or peer pressure, though those social factors seem to impact the decision to sext. It's particularly important to emphasize that researchers did not find that sexting causes risky sexual behavior, merely that they are associated. (In fact, teens today are generally less sexually risky than they were twenty years ago, though this progress appears to have stalled.)

Even if 15% of teens are sexting, 85% aren’t. (To paraphrase your mother, not everyone is doing it.)

Our obsession with teen sexting — though, again, sexting can lead to serious problems for students — may in part be a reflection of our increasing concerns about what role technology plays in our sexual and romantic lives, with a healthy dash of “the-youth-today-and-their-insert-alleged-sexual-cultural-phenomenon.” (Seriously, have you noticed how often we seem to need to talk about the hook-up culture as if it's a new thing? It's like the sexual revolution and free love never happened.)

As one of the researchers at the University of Southern California pointed out, "Sexting might be an easier conversation for teachers to start having with teens than a full-on conversation that starts, ‘Let's talk about sex.’”

We should be talking about sexting, but we should not see sexting as a behavior totally removed from the rest of our sexual lives. For researchers, that may mean acknowledging that middle school, high school and college students have sexual lives, and — perhaps most importantly — that they have sexual lives which are different, and which interact differently with technology, rather than perpetuating the academic equivalent of Lena Dunham's OMG-he-sent-me-what.